Review from Boulder Daily Camera critic Kelly Dean Hansen. Read the whole thing here
“…Woods showed why he is revered as a Mahler interpreter.”
“For Colorado MahlerFest, whose essence has been synonymous with founder Robert Olson for 28 years, this was potentially even more daunting. But Kenneth Woods, who conducted his first MahlerFest concert Saturday at Macky Auditorium, not only signaled the festival’s future direction, but also showed that he was willing to demand and achieve even more from the festival’s volunteer musicians.
Olson, who announced his departure from the festival two years ago and conducted his last concerts in 2015, did pair the annual Mahler symphony with a piece by another composer from time to time. The last time this year’s work, the Seventh Symphony, was presented was in 2004, and he introduced it with Wagner’s “Meistersinger” Prelude, a spiritual ancestor to the symphony’s finale.
Woods opened the concert with another work in the spirit of the Seventh, but this time it was a U.S. premiere by a living composer. Viennese composer Kurt Schwertsik composed his “Nachtmusiken,” or “Night Music Pieces,” in 2009. The kinship with the symphony here is in its three middle movements, two of which are titled “Nachtmusik.”
The five-movement, 25-minute suite is a sparkling, pleasant affair pervaded with an air of elegiac nostalgia. The use of an accordion to add flavor to the second piece, a waltz, is delightful. The fourth piece, a march, and the finale, a fugue, are technically brilliant, while the first and third movements are more introspective. The third, a beautiful memorial to music critic David Drew, is exquisite, with ringing glockenspiel notes, while the first invokes the spirit of Czech composer Leoš Janá ek.
Schwertsik ends his final fugue with an almost whispered quotation from Mahler’s First Symphony, with which it was originally played.
The MahlerFest musicians are not typically asked to play a new work of such length, but they came through with aplomb. The genial Schwertsik was present, and gave a grateful acknowledgement.
Aesthetically, this was a bold and appropriate choice for Woods, but it was also risky. The 80-minute, five-minute Seventh Symphony is complex and difficult, and it’s certainly possible that Woods was asking for a bit too much from the orchestra.
The musicians, however, love their Mahler, and they provided a robust, committed rendition of the symphony, and Woods showed why he is revered as a Mahler interpreter. He navigated the vast, often thorny first movement with a strong sense of direction, and the “heavenly vision” toward the end was sublime. The opening tenor horn solo was also bold and confident.
The “night pieces” were appropriately atmospheric. Woods took a rather fast tempo for both the march-like second movement and the archetypal serenade (complete with guitar and mandolin) in the fourth. Between them, the ghostly central scherzo movement was played with a daring edginess.
The symphony’s overly exuberant, strangely disjunctive finale has divided Mahler experts and fans for much of its existence, and it takes a conductor of great understanding to pull it off. Woods certainly does force a sense of direction on a movement resistant to this, and the jubilant ending drew a huge ovation from the audience.”
Feature article from the Boulder Weekly by Peter Alexander
Composed in 1904 and ’05, the Seventh is one of the least familiar of Mahler’s symphonies. It comprises five fairly diverse movements, two of which — the second and fourth — are titled Nachtmusik (Night music). The diversity of the movements is sometimes seen as a weakness, but Woods sees the diversity as strength.
“I think so much of what happens in the piece is motivated by his love of music, and what you can do with different kinds of music” he says. “[There is] musical humor, musical drama, marches and devil’s dances and love songs.
“It seems like he wanted to take one symphony and just say, ‘Isn’t life rich and interesting, and isn’t music fantastic?’”
And then Woods ties the symphony to Colorado’s 14ers: “The Seventh Symphony comes from this moment when Mahler’s at the top of his game,” he says. “Anyone who has climbed a 14er knows that when you get to the top you want to savor it. You want to stop and look at the view, but you can’t stay up there all that long. Mahler’s Seventh is that moment when he’s reached the summit.”
Woods believes the Seventh also represents a change of focus for Mahler. His earlier symphonies had featured narratives about a hero who struggles against the world. In the Sixth Symphony, the hero is felled by three cruel blows of fate.
“The Seventh Symphony seems to be pulling back the camera a little bit,” Woods says. “You start to realize how much bigger the world is, and your experiences and the experience of nature, than just what happens to a single man. It’s a much bigger canvas.”
The Nachtmusik movements color parts of the Seventh Symphony, but not all. “You start in a nocturnal landscape, and you end in daylight,” Woods says. “In the last movement we open the door and walk out into downtown Manhattan on a Monday morning — noise and people everywhere, and isn’t this great? Life goes on!”
Feature article from the Boulder Daily Camera by Kelly Dean Hansen
Woods has chosen Mahler’s enigmatic Seventh Symphony, which was last programmed in 2004. Olson had skipped the piece in favor of the Ninth — the composer’s last completed — for his final appearance last year.
Woods said that the 80-minute Seventh is a “virtuosic, compelling piece with amazing orchestration.” Long one of his most neglected symphonies, it has enjoyed resurgence along with increased interest in Mahler himself. Woods said that in many ways, it defies expectations of what a Mahler symphony should be.
“It’s really the one where the autobiographical aspect seen in all of the first six symphonies is really downplayed,” Woods said. “At the end of the Sixth, the heroic protagonist, for the first time, was destroyed at the end rather than being victorious or redeemed. In the Seventh, Mahler pulls back the camera and is more observational, with broader awareness of nature and life.”
The symphony, composed in 1904-05, was admired by Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, the later spiritual fathers of modern atonal music. But today, the “modern” aspects seem rather tame. A passage frequently cited from the first movement as forward-looking for its time now sounds similar to the “Star Trek” theme. The movement itself is vast and complex. The middle three of the five movements are all “night pieces,” including the central ghostly scherzo, which is framed by a nocturnal march and a beautiful serenade (in which Mahler asks for the participation of mandolin and guitar). This emerges into an extremely radiant finale whose relentless positivity puzzled many of Mahler’s early admirers and critics.
Woods says that the piece “represents an absolute master at the peak of his craft,” adding that “Mahler was setting aside the metaphysics to focus on the music.”
Interview/podcast with Nathan Heffel from Colorado Public radio
For the first time, someone new will be on the podium at MahlerFest: conductor Kenneth Woods.
Woods will conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 for his MahlerFest debut on May 21 and 22. He calls it one of Mahler’s most worldly pieces, mixing scenes of nature with sonic cityscapes.
And on his blog, A View From The Podium, Woods posts satirical essays about the classical world alongside thoughtful analysis of music he performs in concert.
The funny essays — like a recent post in which an imaginary orchestra stops performing and recording to spend more time on social media — often get the biggest reaction, he says.
But sometimes the less popular ones resonate more deeply, especially with other musicians. Woods says aspiring conductors sometimes thank him for his more scholarly posts years after he publishes them. (Here’s one he wrote about Mahler’s Seventh Symphony and its connections to the composer’s other music.)
Woods spoke with Colorado Matters host Nathan Heffel about his love of Mahler’s music, his plans for the festival and his digital presence.
Hear Woods conduct music from Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” — the first Mahler piece Woods remembers hearing as a child: